HANOI: Smog-filled skies have a cast a pall over the otherwise flourishing Vietnamese city of Hanoi. “If you come to the city in the daytime, everyone wears a mask and you try to protect your face and body from the environment,” said Associate Professor Pham Thuy Loan, deputy director of Vietnam’s Institute of Architecture under the Ministry of Construction.
“You hardly see blue sky,” said Thanh Nguyen, a former urban planner who now owns a wedding planning business. “On Facebook, everyday, people post the air pollution index from the American Embassy that shows Hanoi in very bad condition. People are really concerned.”
HAZARDOUS AIR QUALITY
Last month, on Mar 1 at 9am, the US Embassy in Hanoi recorded an unprecedented Air Quality Index (AQI) of 388, a reading in the “hazardous” level.
“For that much pollution, people should not leave the house,” said Mai Hoang Nam, an employee of the State Bank of Vietnam. “But in Hanoi, people still move around. Even on the motorbike, sometimes they do not wear masks.”
In 2012, a French pollutant analysis company ARIA Technologies ranked Hanoi the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, and among the worst in Asia when it comes to air quality. Officials are reluctant to acknowledge this.
“It’s not precise to say Hanoi is as badly polluted as Beijing, though it’s a very worrying situation,” said Hoang Duong Tung, deputy general director of the Vietnam Environment Administration told local media.
Hanoi's traffic during the morning peak hour. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
TRAFFIC THE BIGGEST CULPRIT
Vietnam’s Centre for Environmental Monitoring reported that 70 per cent of Hanoi’s air pollution is created by the endless stream of traffic, a problem that only came into existence in the last 20 years.
Up to the mid-1990s, the bicycle was still the dominant mode of transport in Vietnam. However, fuelled by one of the world's fastest expanding economies, bicycles have almost entirely given way to motorcycles.
Bicycles have almost been entirely replaced by motorcycles in Vietnamese cities. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Official data shows that there are now 5.3 million motorbikes and 560,000 cars in Hanoi, with figures set to increase at 11 per cent every year for motorcycles and 17 per cent for cars.
“Almost everyone has a motorcycle, while public transport is limited and not very popular,” Tung said. “The habit of walking is anything but common here. People use motorbikes even for very short distances.”
By 2020, there will be nearly one million cars and seven million motorbikes plying the city’s streets.
THREAT TO HEALTH
Citing statistics from healthcare agencies, Khuat Viet Hung, vice chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said air pollution kills around 44,000 people in Vietnam every year.
The problem is apparently worse in the capital than in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam’s largest city.
According to statistics from the transport ministry's health department, Hanoi has a bigger respiratory disease issue and its residents spend twice as much money on respiratory treatments than their counterparts in the southern metropolis.
“Frequent and prolonged traffic congestion is another contributor to the increasing air pollution level," said Professor Le Huy Ba, head of the Institute for Science, Technology and Environment Management under HCMC’s University of Industry.
Police directing traffic during the morning peak period. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
The rapid increase in vehicle numbers has far outpaced the government’s effort to expand and upgrade Hanoi’s transport infrastructure, resulting in ever-worsening traffic congestion.
The problem is compounded by the existence of many narrow streets and alleys often too tiny for cars to pass through.
These lanes are “not meant for cars”, explained Thanh, the former urban planner. “The development happened a long time ago. The roads were just designed for two lanes. But there are so many people and vehicles, so there's a demand for wider roads but the city just cannot provide such space because the cost of compensation is super expensive.”
Nguyen Thanh, a former urban planner, thinks that Hanoi suffers from more air pollution than Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
Even when new roads get built, officials said it is "alarming” that they get overcrowded just a couple years after being opened to traffic. To catch up with the surging growth of vehicles, they estimate that Hanoi will need to invest around US$20 billion in the next five years to further expand its road network.
There are also other plans in the pipeline to help improve air quality, including implementing more stringent emission standards for both cars and motorcycles, as well as a move to cleaner fuel.
Peak hour traffic at a major road junction. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
OWNING CARS A STATUS SYMBOL
Another measure that was adopted in January this year: A 200 per cent tax on automobile purchases. Ironically, some observers said driving up car prices makes them more attractive to own.
“During the 1990s, having a motorcycle was such a fortune. You can have an apartment with around VND30 to 40 million (US$1,300 to US$1,800), and a motorcycle cost just a little less than that,” said Thanh.
“Now, to have a car you have to pay VND500 to 600 million (US$22,400 to US$26,900), and for an apartment you just need two to three times more. But people keep buying new cars.”
Mai Hoang Nam: "When I ride the bike, I can suffer quite a lot. My nose gets stuffy, and when I go home I have to take a shower."
Nam, who drives a car his in-laws purchased, said many car owners “just want to show off”. “They want to show other people that they are successful and have a lot of money. That’s the main reason,” he said.
However, Assoc Prof Loan believes there might be another explanation, especially for parents with young children. “I don’t like cars at all,” she said. “But I need the car to protect my kids. I take them to school and I have to keep them safe (from pollution).”
Assoc Prof Pham Thuy Loan, deputy director of Vietnam Institute of Architecture. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
ONLY SOLUTION: PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The solution, according to Assoc Prof Loan, is not to “make better roads” and “give priority to cars”. Rather, the authorities should keep focused on developing public transport. “First can be the bus - rapid bus - then trams, subway or metro.”
For now, buses are the only form of public transport available in Hanoi, serving a paltry 3 to 10 per cent of the population. Passenger numbers are falling as lack of investment makes the service inconvenient.
In Hanoi, almost everybody owns a motorcycle. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
“If there is good public transport, I will choose to travel by public transport, rather than travelling by motorbike or car,” said Nam.
Up to eight metro lines have been planned for the capital city. The project is being coordinated and financed by several organisations including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank.
Construction for two lines began several years ago. One is Chinese-built while the other one is being worked on by Koreans. Progress has been slow on both fronts, with projects dogged by fatal accidents, deferred deadlines and cost overruns.
Vendors often overload their motorcycles, flouting traffic rules. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
“I GIVE UP”
Environmental experts are warning of an impending “airpocalypse” if air quality continues to deteriorate.
When asked what he can do as a resident to help avert the scenario, Nam said: “I have no other choice than to say that I give up.”
He added: “The government needs to be willing to reduce air pollution and ignore the economy a little bit. But I think this will probably never happen.”
Nguyen Huy Phung, the owner of a motorcycle workshop, put it even more succinctly: “That is a problem for the government, not mine.”
Aerial view of Hanoi's "tube" houses shrouded in a haze. (Photo: Ray Yeh)